Prepare for a thriller at Ellis Park – the Lions-Highlanders clashes are always epic

The stage is set for a potentially thrilling semi-final at Ellis Park between the Lions and the Highlanders if past history and current form is anything to go by. The Lions are without captain Warren Whiteley, but they have a more than capable replacement skipper in Jaco Kriel who guided the undefeated team to Currie Cup glory last year. The stats for Super Rugby playoffs reveal that teams which travel tend to be on the losing side. In the history of the competition, only seven play-off matches have been won by the visiting team. Home ground advantage will obviously count hugely in the Lions’ favour. Sport 24’s Rob Houwing revisits previous encounters which suggest this match could be yet another a humdinger. – David O’Sullivan

By Rob Houwing

If Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final between the Lions and Highlanders at Emirates Airline Park (15:00) is anything like other meetings between them since the advent of conference formats in the competition, spectators should be in for both a pleasing spectacle and nerve-jangler.

These foes have met four times since Super Rugby was first split into groups in 2011, and the bragging rights are shared at 2-2, with three of the encounters in the balance right to and beyond the siren.

There are two years within the period when they didn’t play each other: 2012, when the tournament draw excluded an encounter, and 2013, the controversial season when the Lions were effectively shoved aside for a year and the Kings made their debut in place of the Highveld outfit.


But there have been a quartet of usually thrilling clashes, and here are summaries of those matches, starting with most recent, earlier this season:

2016: Highlanders 34 Lions 15 (Dunedin)

Helped by a brace of tries from centre Matt Faddes, the hosts and defending champions earned a rare, reasonably straightforward triumph over the Lions very early in this year’s ordinary season. But there were mitigating circumstances for the visitors: it was their last of three tour games and they had already beaten both the Sunwolves in Tokyo and, famously, the Chiefs in Hamilton. So the tour had already been banked as a success, and Johan Ackermann opted, for example, to rest his first-choice front row at Forsyth Barr Stadium – mindful that immediately after flying back, they had to prepare for a tough local derby against the Cheetahs, which they duly won to confirm their hunger for the journey still ahead…

2015: Lions 28 Highlanders 23 (Johannesburg)

A mini-epic, this one: the Lions, playing in round 13 against opponents who would go on to be crowned for the first time, seemed nowhere initially and went into the break an ominous 20-3 down at Emirates Airline Park. Greatly aided by the infusion of halfback combo Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies from the bench, however, the Lions were unrecognisable in the second period, and three tries in quarter of an hour (Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel, Harold Vorster) turned the game memorably and irreversibly on its head. The fixture will be quirkily remembered for roadside problems with the Highlanders’ bus en route to the stadium: several of their players were hastily transported to the venue by willing Jo’burg Metro cops.

2014: Highlanders 23 Lions 22 (Dunedin)

Again, a white-knuckle contest…and one not without controversy. The Lions seemed absolute goners at half-time (0-23) but their next 40 minutes were little short of inspirational as they roared back with four tries through De Klerk, Skosan, Lionel Mapoe and Akker van der Merwe. Skosan’s was in the 79th minute, and the result hinged on Jantjies’ difficult conversion from far out. Alas, he could not complete the intended fairy-tale. But not much earlier, NZ-based TMO Vinny Munro had ruled against second-rower Rudi Mathee scoring against the post, based on “inconclusive evidence” even though that ruling seemed rather questionable – naturally it was a position from which Jantjies would have found the conversion a formality. Utility back Richard Buckman (ruled out of the entire 2016 season with a shoulder injury) had registered two of the three Highlanders’ tries.

2011: Highlanders 22 Lions 26 (Dunedin)

The Lions ended the 2011 competition a lowly 14th out of the 15 participating teams at the time … but curiously two of their mere three victories were achieved abroad (the other was against the Brumbies). Here they effectively ended the Highlanders’ lingering playoffs hopes – the game was played at the old Carisbrook venue – with a spirited underdog triumph. Their tries came from bearded icon Josh Strauss (now of Scotland and Glasgow Warriors) and Wikus van Heerden, with the lone home touchdown via Shaun Treeby. Greatly helping the memorable win was the accuracy off the tee of Jantjies, who converted both tries and also landed four high-pressure penalties in the ding-dong affair. – Sport24


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